Content warning: sexual assault, domestic abuse
The recent resignations of two Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) executives – former President Ben Ger and former VP External David Aird – over allegations of gendered violence have sparked intense criticism of SSMU’s nominal commitment to transparency and accountability. Moreover, many are calling for the Society to adopt a sexual assault policy (SAP) which would apply to its Executive Committee.
While the University did recently adopt its own Sexual Violence Policy (SVP), which applies to all students registered at McGill, a SSMU SAP would in theory give undergraduates at the University more recourse in holding their elected officials accountable.
The SVP cannot be used to suspend or remove SSMU executives from their positions. This means that if any future executive were to be accused of sexual assault, SSMU members would have to wait for the University to take action against that executive as an individual – something McGill has historically been reluctant to do.
A SSMU SAP, or more administration involvement?
Nevertheless, many students have argued that it should be McGill’s administration, rather than SSMU, which takes a larger role in countering sexual violence on campus.
In a letter published on March 2, 2017 in The McGill Daily, 18 SSMU representatives, all of whom sit on the Society’s Legislative Council, addressed McGill’s administration. The letter recognized the “insufficiency of the SSMU executive team in the handling of their response,” but felt that this didn’t excuse the Administration’s silence on the matter.
“The problem of sexual violence is not limited to the SSMU,” reads the letter. “It affects everyone on campus, especially those survivors that have come forth. Principal Fortier, the administration is accountable to every one of its students and shoulders the burden of the responsibility to take action. The silence from the Administration throughout this process is alarming.”
The letter called on the administration to collaborate with SSMU to “to emphasize section 8 of the sexual violence policy and push the active working group to hold workshops and presentations concerning sexual violence at McGill residences and campus as a whole for the remainder of the semester.”
The letter also called on the administration to follow and adopt the CDN’s demands, and “to take direct measures to ensure the continued safety of students and survivors on and around campus.” Measures listed included timely disclosures, safety planning, section changes. Most importantly the letter called for “screening of [SSMU] executives.” Nowhere in the letter is there a call for SSMU to adopt its own SAP to counter its own shortcomings.
Hence, a large part of the debate over a SSMU SAP revolves around how much independence SSMU and its members should have in regulating its own Executive Committee, and when the University’s administration should step in.
The Executive Committee talks a SSMU-specific SAP
VP Student Life Elaine Patterson, who has taken on the role of SSMU spokesperson following Ger’s resignation, told The Daily in an email that there “have been conversations amongst the SSMU executives regarding a policy and a set of protocols that can be put in place in order to create a structure to better manage reports of disclosure of sexual harassment to an exec.”
“In terms of first steps,” she added, “we hope to organize a time for the current executives and the [newly elected SSMU] executives to attend a workshop on reports of disclosure offered by Consent McGill. Additionally, [VP University Affairs] Erin Sobat is in touch with representatives from the Community Disclosure Network (CDN) to ensure consultation while this policy and these protocols are in development.”
In a statement to The Daily, Sobat spoke about the process of creating such a policy. “By their request I am working […] to help meet the requests in [the CDN’s] statement, re: sexual violence in general not just harassment,” he explained. “However this is really […] labour of policy/protocol development based on consultation and outreach to different groups and oversight from our governance bodies.”
“We are looking into the best ways to facilitate sensitive consultation and dialogue on moving forward, through CDN and staff resources,” he added. “We recognize that people do not necessarily feel comfortable reaching out to the executive right now and that there need to be multiple avenues for involvement and input.”
“Well intentioned but dangerously half-baked”
While many on campus have called for such a policy, some students feel that this simply isn’t enough.
Silence is Violence (SiV), a survivor-led collective of community members at McGill which “advocate for institutional accountability and tackle rape culture on campus” released a statement last Thursday detailing their thoughts on a hypothetical SSMU SAP.
While the collective expressed outrage at Ger and Aird’s behaviour, and understood the calls to action, they expressed concerns that calls for a SSMU-specific SAP are “short-sighted, narrow and lack adequate context.”
“Since the adoption of SVP last winter, and, indeed, in the past few years when a SVP has been under development at McGill, [the] McGill Administration has constantly used the SVP to make a show of its supposed commitment to responding to sexual violence – and shut down any criticism of its shortcomings in that regard,” reads the statement.
“While a policy can indeed provide structure for addressing sexual violence,” the statement continues, “calling for the creation of a policy without holistically confronting – in this case – the dynamics that encourage, sustain and tolerate abuse in activist communities is a cheap way out of assuming liability for past incidents and committing to their prevention in the future.”
SiV also raised concerns about whether or not this meant that clubs, faculty and departmental associations, and other groups on campus would themselves also adopt a sexual assault policy of their own.
“How much time and resources would that take?” SiV wrote. “How many sexual assault policies does this institution need?” SiV stated that, instead, they felt McGill would “benefit more from a campus-wide initiative to use already existing structures to extend the SVP to all other separate legal entities at McGill.”
The collective cited the Office of the Dean of Students signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Management Undergraduate Society to extend the Code of Students’ Conduct and a variety of other forms of oversights to Carnival, an event which involved heavy drinking. “Participants would hence be subject to this Code in case they cross the line,” the statement reads.
Disagreements between the CDN and SiV
In an email to The Daily, the CDN confirmed that the Network was working with SSMU in the hopes of creating a stand alone “Gendered and Sexualized Violence Policy,” or a GSVP.
“Our goals in working with SSMU are to create a pro-survivor document that protects the SSMU community, and also to ensure that resources and outlines of procedures are made as accessible as possible to survivors without them having to disclose anything,” the CDN wrote.
“This requires a dialogue within the creation of a policy of what these processes or a recourse of action will look like,” the email continues, “and how SSMU can work with other student groups on campus to make sure that such a policy and the procedures it outlines are implemented properly.”
When asked how the Network felt about SiV’s comments on a SSMU-specific SAP, they responded that they had been in contact with SiV but didn’t share the collective’s feelings.
“We reached out to them as soon as we saw [SiV’s] statement, to inquire that they remove [CDN’s] name,” explained the Network. “As their statement outlined that the creation of a SSMU GSVP would not be useful (we think it is crucial), and that we are calling for an apology or further accountability on the part of Erin Sobat (we are not), we did not want to be perceived as sharing these concerns. They responded quickly to our communication and have since rectified their statement.”
At the time of publication, the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) had yet to sit down with SSMU executives to discuss the Society adopting a sexual assault policy, and hence were not comfortable speaking with The Daily about their recommendations on the subject.